Joe Flacco says that he doesn't hear much of the criticism. He abstains from reading about the Ravens in the local papers. He mostly ignores watching all the NFL pundits on television and he certainly doesn't listen to talk radio, where his merits as a quarterback are tediously debated on an hourly basis.
But when word got back to Flacco that he was taking the brunt of the blame for last January's playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the normally stoic Raven seethed.
"There's a lot of disappointment when you lose a playoff game. We lost the game," said Flacco, who went 16-for-30 for 125 yards, threw one touchdown and committed two turnovers in the 31-24 defeat at Heinz FIeld. "I played well all year, I played well in the playoffs and I played well in that game, I thought. For people to react like that, I don't know. You don't always get it. When you are a player, you don't really understand the criticism when you feel like you played pretty well."
No quarterback in NFL history has more regular-season wins through his first four seasons than Flacco. No starting quarterback in NFL history has gone to the playoffs in the first four years of his career until Flacco accomplished that feat this season. And no quarterback in Baltimore football history has thrown for 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons until Flacco arrived on the scene in 2008 and was handed the reins to the Ravens' offense.
Yet as the Ravens begin their playoff run Sunday against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium, it is Flacco who some believe has the most to prove. Winning games hasn't been enough for Flacco to be fully embraced as the franchise quarterback by a fan base consumed by celebrating another Super Bowl.
"There is a lot of pressure on organizations and on players to win it all," said Flacco, who is 4-3 in seven career playoff games, but will play at home in the postseason for the first time Sunday. "If you don't, there is a lot of disappointment and a lot of fallout because of it."
In some respects, Flacco may have put more pressure on himself heading into these playoffs. In April, he expressed some displeasure with the Ravens for not giving him an extension on his rookie contract, which ends after next season. He doesn't regret or back off those comments, saying recently that a contract extension "is either going to happen at some point or it's not."
"The bottom line is I'm not too worried about it either way. Do I feel like I deserve one? Yeah. Do I feel like I'm going to get one? Yeah. If I don't get one, is it going to be a huge deal? No, it is what it is," Flacco said. "It's not up to me. It's up to me to go out and put our team in the best spot to win football games."
Then on Wednesday, Flacco took a couple of playful jabs at the media, saying if the Ravens win the Super Bowl, "I'll have nothing to do with why we won according to you guys," and questioning why the same people who call for an elite quarterback complain when the team has a pass-heavy game plan.
Two weeks earlier, the quarterback acknowledged in an interview with The Sun that he's felt underappreciated at times during his tenure in Baltimore despite leading the Ravens to four consecutive playoff berths.
"Shoot, the statistics might not show it but I feel like I've been playing some of my best football this year," said Flacco, who turns 27 on Monday. "For you to look at statistics and say what's happening or what's going on, I think that's a little crazy. You're not watching every game or breaking down how I've been playing. I think if you ask the people around here, and if you ask me, I think I've been playing pretty good football. That's why we're looking forward to going 12-4 and getting a first-round bye. I don't think you do that without good quarterback play."
Answering his critics
Flacco, whose toughness has never been questioned, started all 16 games and still has not missed a game since entering the NFL.
"That is something that oftentimes gets overlooked about Joe Flacco," said his coach, John Harbaugh. "Not only is he a winner [but] he is durable. Joe is tough. He is really a guy that play-in and play-out, hops back up, never complains about getting hit, never looks at the official [and says], 'Where's my call?' He just gets back in the huddle and plays the next play. That's kind of Baltimore, isn't it?"
While dealing with almost an entirely new group of pass catchers and working behind a retooled offensive line, he threw for 3,610 yards and 20 touchdowns in the regular season. One of those — a perfectly placed, 26-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field — secured the Ravens' biggest win of the season and capped the defining drive of his young career.
But he also provided plenty of fodder for the skeptics. His 57.6 completion percentage was a career low, and ranked 26th among NFL quarterbacks. His 80.9 quarterback rating was his worst since his rookie season. Along with 12 interceptions, he fumbled 11 times, losing six of them.
"I think Joe has as much natural, God-given talent as anybody playing the position right now. There's no question he is going to get better, although in looking at this year, I think there's been a little plateau to his game," said Monday Night Football analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski, who has followed Flacco closely since he was at the University of Delaware. "I saw Joe improving each and every year as he developed. This year, I would say it's been flat. I haven't seen the quantum leap that I expected, but I think there have been reasons for that."
Jaworski cited the Ravens' evolving offensive schemes, their inexperience at wide receiver, and the abbreviated offseason created by the lockout. That prevented Flacco from getting more work in with first- or second-year pass catchers like Smith, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and Ravens newcomer Lee Evans. The Ravens were among the league leaders in dropped passes as well.
"I'm not really blinking too much about what my completion percentage is," Flacco said. "For people to look at that is a little ridiculous because you're not looking at what I've done over my career, and what the reasons for those incompletions might be. How many balls did I throw away? I don't want to talk about drops because I'm the quarterback, but we've talked about needing to be better in that area."
Still, some pundits are openly questioning whether Flacco has what it takes to complement dynamic running back Ray Rice and one of the NFL's top-ranked defenses, and lead the team to next month's Super Bowl in Indianapolis. One analyst openly wondered this week whether Flacco will even be able to match Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates on Sunday.
"Flacco, are you going to outplay T.J. Yates or are you going to let Yates outplay you?" former running back and current NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk asked on the air. "This is going to say a lot about Joe Flacco and what we say about him from here on."
Taking the next step
Jaworski believes that Flacco is plenty good enough to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He also maintained that a lot of the criticism directed at the fourth-year signal caller is unfair.
"I'm literally shocked that Joe hasn't been accepted more, and not [just] in Baltimore, but around the country," he said. "What do you hear about [Denver Broncos quarterback] Tim Tebow right now? 'Oh, he's a winner.' What the hell has Joe Flacco done? Playoff wins, on-the-road wins. Joe lines up and gives you consistent play, week-in and week-out. Maybe Joe needs to pound his chest a little bit more and brag about himself. I'm saying that facetiously, but Joe is kind of unassuming, goes about his business. But the guy lines up and he's tough. What more does this guy have to do before people trust him? Even the national media looks more for the warts on Joe Flacco than all the good things that he's doing."
His teammates also insist that the quarterback's public persona and his reputation as a quiet and unemotional guy — one of the frequently heard criticisms about Flacco — are far from the player that they witness on a daily basis. Rookie backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor talked about all the times Flacco has spent with him, answering questions about the playbook and inviting him to review game film. Evans praised Flacco for his communication skills and for keeping things light even during tough times.
"People may think, 'Does he have a personality?' He always comes across as kind of dry and whatever, but he's the opposite of that," Evans said. "I think that's what a lot of people don't see, his personality, how good it is to work with him. The way he communicates has been great."
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron even laughed off the attention paid to Flacco's uncharacteristically feisty interview on Wednesday. Flacco, smiling throughout, was clearly having a little fun with it, but his comments got a lot of attention, especially since so many members of the national media were in town.
"We're just fortunate we get to see him a little bit differently than you guys do so you guys are a little surprised by that and we're not. So welcome to Joe Flacco," Cameron said. "The bottom line is we're all shutting everybody up all the time these days. You have to, and Joe's just one of those guys, he's got the courage to come out and say it."
For his part, Flacco seems amused by the attention he gets. He doubled over in laughter when he was informed that baltimoresun.com did a poll asking what he and his wife, Dana, should name their first child, which is due in mid-June. He also has fun at the regular questions about the Fu Manchu mustache that he is sported since the Ravens' Thanksgiving game. The other questions, he accepts as a necessary bi-product of his chosen profession.
"When you're a quarterback in this league, you're going to be talked about and it's going to be on a weekly basis," he said. "Really, things you've done in the past don't really matter. That's why you've got to make sure you go out there and are on top of your game each and every week. At the same time, put all of that stuff behind you and trust your teammates have your back."
That's clearly the case with the Ravens. Asked about his faith in Flacco this week, middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who has seen quarterbacks come and go in Baltimore during his 16-year tenure, said, "Now, where we are, why wouldn't it be Joe to go lead us to a Super Bowl?"
As he usually does, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs took it one step further, saying, "Joe will show you all where he's at. We're going to ride Joe all the way to Indianapolis."
That road starts Sunday, and nobody will be under more pressure and scrutiny than Flacco.
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